With his assistant coaches sitting at his left and right, Richard Pitino leans back in a black leather chair and takes a sip of Gatorade. With video rolling from the Gophers’ first October scrimmage, the basketball coach pulls open a manila folder to dive into his notes.
Immediately, he sees something disturbing on the screen. He calls it “horrific” transition defense, when 6-foot-10 center Gaston Diedhiou falls down but still outruns everyone up the court to receive a pass for an uncontested dunk.
Diedhiou can run, but he’s no Usain Bolt.
“What was that?” Pitino says.
It’s then the Gophers coach realizes he has no idea where his children went.
“My kids aren’t making noise,” Pitino says, standing to address the silence that haunts any parent of antsy children.
Ava and Jack were tossing around an exercise ball and climbing fitness equipment just moments ago outside of the door. Now?
Pitino pokes his head outside of the strategy room below Williams Arena.
“I don’t know what’s going on out there,” he says, eventually deciding, “Jill must have them locked in a closet somewhere.”
Here’s Richard Pitino — a 34-year-old father of three children 5 and under, husband to Jill and the youngest coach in a major college basketball conference, learning to balance the biggest things in his life.
The most public piece of his juggling act is a team he feels is his most talented yet but one that desperately needs to prove itself after an abysmal 8-23 season.
And the proving begins with this young father/husband/coach himself. To many, he’s a fledgling coach hired at Minnesota three years ago because of a Hall of Fame last name.
“It’s the reality of where I am,” he said. “But I believe in what I’m doing, and that’s never really changed.”
The most difficult moments for Pitino last season were during his team’s 14-game losing streak. He wasn’t just anxious about going home to hear Ava, now 5, ask about the games. He sometimes skipped the postgame greeting with an ornery Williams Arena crowd after the “Rouser,” and he was even skittish about walking into Starbucks.
Starting Friday, Pitino gets a chance to make going for coffee much easier, for with the opener against Louisiana-Lafayette comes optimism with a new-look team.
“We thought we were really going to reset in Year 3, and we did,” Pitino said. “It was challenging, but everybody understood we were starting over. I’ve always said I thought Year 4 was the year we would turn the corner. I feel like we can really compete now.”
On a soggy, overcast Saturday morning last month, Pitino, in a long-sleeved Gophers polo shirt and black sweatpants, showed up 30 minutes early to be the celebrity guest at the Brain Tumor Awareness 5K race at Como Park in St. Paul.
The first runner who spotted him said, “Good luck this year, Coach.”
The event organizer could not help but tell him, “I hope you have a better year than last year.”
There was more of a buzz about Gophers basketball when Rick Pitino celebrated at Madison Square Garden when his son accomplished something he never did: win 25 games and an NIT title in his first season in a major conference. But Richard went 26-38 and failed to make the postseason the next two years. This is a critical season for many reasons, not the least of which is to show progress under new athletic director Mark Coyle.
When Pitino took the stage to kick off the 5K, he noticed the audience was as gloomy as the weather. “That’s not a great round of applause,” he playfully told the crowd, and they livened up a bit.
Walking off stage, Pitino posed for pictures and heard of growing excitement from longtime Gophers fans.
Pitino’s image has taken a hit in the past year, and for more reasons than the historic number of losses. Four players were suspended and another was kicked off the team. And fans cringed when they learned of Pitino’s $7 million buyout and overuse of program luxuries such as private jet travel.
This summer, Pitino made time to create new impressions.
The Gophers booster club wondered if it would ever see Pitino when he first got hired in 2013. Former AD Norwood Teague told his coach not to deal with the boosters, but “when Norwood [resigned], I reached out to the Golden Dunkers, and told them I would like to do more,” Pitino said.
Pitino was receptive to former Gophers associating more with their alma mater. His team met with current and former NBA players, such as Kris Humphries and John Thomas. When former guard Jamal Abu-Shamala wanted to start an alumni group, Pitino made sure his staff and players were involved.
“What’s exciting going into Year 4 is you know more people,” Pitino said. “It puts you more at ease to do your job. When we were first here, there was going to be a wait-and-see and get-to-know period.”
Being more available has been a clear change of strategy for Pitino. Asked how she was able to convince the busy coach to be the 5K celebrity, Debby Rosenauer responded: “I just walked up to him at the concession stand at Williams Arena during one of his camps. Told him about the [event], and if he’d be interested in coming. He said to just call his secretary to set it up.”
Pitino pulls into the parking lot of Ava’s dance center in Edina with enough time to catch the last few minutes of her class after the Saturday morning 5K.
As he opens the door to the studio, 2-year-old Jack shows no signs of the ear infection that kept him and his parents up most of the night before.
Pitino braces for impact as Super Jack with an “S” on his shirt races down the steps and leaps into his arms, yelling, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”
Jill meets them at the top of the stairs with their 4-month-old, Zoe, resting in a carrier.
Jack tugs on his dad’s legs to see the end of Ava’s class. They stand together at the door, waiting for Ava to change clothes before their next stop.
“When you have young kids like I do, you want to do your job, but you also want to help your wife because her job is hard,” Pitino says. “I want to make sure she’s not doing it by herself. So I do my very best, even if it’s bringing the kids to practice on a weekend.”
When Ava reappears, her parents ask her if she wants to go to work with Dad. She nods. She loves being around the team.
“My best memories growing up were being in the gym,” said Pitino, who grew up mostly in Boston and New York when his dad coached the Celtics and Knicks. “Traveling on the road with the team, doing all those things. When you’re a coach’s kid, if you want to see your dad, you go to him.”
Between the car seats of the maroon Chevy Tahoe, Pitino sets his black backpack next to two pairs of princess-themed slippers. Papers and gym clothes are scattered in back.
Ava asks Dad to open her snack bag and water, which she drops. Good thing the cap was on.
As she mumbles words to Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” on the radio, Ava notices a university billboard near campus. “Gophers, Dad,” she says.
Back to work
Assistants Ben Johnson and Ed Conroy are waiting for their head coach in the players’ lounge when three-fifths of the Pitino family arrives.
Pitino critiques defensive issues from the scrimmage, and there is quite the laundry list. After he figures out where his kids have run off to, he closes the meeting feeling encouraged about the Gophers offensively, especially if Amir Coffey, Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy take to heart his urging to be aggressive.
Nearly every preseason publication highlights that trio as impact players for Pitino, but their predictions have the Gophers finishing right where they were last season: in 13th place, or just one spot higher. And Pitino can find his name on almost every “hot seat” list.
“More than anything, you can’t lose confidence and read into those things,” Pitino said. “You have to understand that we’re a lot closer than some people think we are.”
Before a team meeting on this early October morning, Pitino tells a manager to bring Diedhiou. He tells “Gas” not to get frustrated when things aren’t going his way. “Don’t get discouraged and let emotions get to you,” Pitino said. He’ll later encourage a deflated Murphy and give newcomer Akeem Springs some support. It’s a team in need of constant TLC, but tough love fills the meeting room when the players take a seat to go over the scrimmage.
“I think we’re mentally weak,” he said. “We get tired, we shut down. I think we get tired and we don’t get back [on defense]. Sometimes being disciplined is getting back and getting set. We need to get mentally stronger.”
An early point of emphasis is Murphy losing his man after being screened. Pitino demonstrates in front of the team how he wants them to jump the screen, not sag. “You’ve been confused with that for a year,” Pitino tells his All-Big Ten freshman from a season ago.
After pointing out more mistakes, Pitino says: “We’ll lose to Lafayette if we don’t clean up some of this stuff. We’ve got a tough schedule, guys.”
Before practice begins, Pitino sees Ava at the scorer’s table and gives her a stick of gum. He grabs one for himself and tosses that wrapper at her to get a chuckle. Later, after more defensive drills, Pitino walks back to the sideline to check on her again. She’s running up and down the arena’s empty rows.
“Sometimes she wants me to leave her alone,” Pitino says. “I was the same way watching my dad’s practices. It’s how I grew up.”
‘Daddy, did you win?’
The two-hour practice is nearing its end. Heads are down, hands are on knees.
Pitino screams when they don’t get around a screen the way he demonstrated. “When you get tired with this drill, don’t let your fundamentals go away,” he barks.
Ava was out of sight but returns to give assistant Kimani Young a high-five coming up from the locker room. She’s beaming with an ice cream treat in hand.
Earlier, Ava built a fortress made out of orange cones, red and blue plastic cups and a basketball. Soccer is her favorite sport, but she’s learning to golf, play tennis and swim. This will be her first year playing basketball, too. The sports “give my wife some reprieve,” the coach says.
The Gophers gather at midcourt for Pitino’s speech to finish practice.
“They should be talking about you two guys for all-conference,” Pitino says, pointing to Murphy and Mason. “They should be saying you’re one of the best freshmen in the conference, Amir. They should be saying you’re one of the best freshmen in the conference, Eric [Curry]. They should be saying you’re one of the most improved, Dupree [McBrayer]. We’re not where we’re supposed to be, but we’ll get there.”
Ava is waiting at the top of the steps when her dad appears and asks if she wants a late lunch before they go home. She nods and grabs her dad’s hand.
The losses piled up so much last season that Ava noticed. After games, she would creep up to his bed and tap Pitino, asking, “Daddy, did you win?”
The Gophers upset No. 6 Maryland last February for their first Big Ten victory of the season and one of the biggest wins of Pitino’s career. The moment from that night that he holds on to: “I finally got to wake her up,” he says.
It’s those moments, when family and basketball intersect, that seem to be just as important to Pitino as a bounce-back season from his Gophers.
“Coaches, we got practices six times a week,” he said. “We’re in the office late; normally we’re leaving before [our kids] wake up or we’re coming home after they go to bed. My favorite moments are when Ava and Jack are at practice. I love that.”